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Spotlight on University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Funded Graduate Student: Katie Williams

Graduate Student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Katie Williams was the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Funded graduate student on the Impact Based Warning System assessment working with Extension Agent Dr. Jane Harrison.

What is your impression of Impact Based Warning?

The Impact Based Warnings are a great example of how small changes can improve the reception of communication strategies.  Through social science research, the National Weather Service was able to gleam how different stakeholder groups were using the warnings, so they could identify how to improve them.  The NWS found more warnings would not necessarily improve emergency response, but emphasizing how people and property would be affected would.   

What is something surprising you learned while working on the Impact Based Warning Assessment?

Besides the fact that the skies of Eastern North Dakota are enormous over the flat landscape?  It was very interesting to hear the breadth of knowledge that emergency managers have.  While it makes perfect sense, it was   to hear the hazards they navigate. The hazards include law enforcement and local government procedures, landscape details, local and regional history, individual personalities, warning siren mechanics, storm dynamics, and city council diplomacy.  On top of that, they tell jokes about all of it.   It was hard not to come away from the project with an enormous amount of respect for the way they have to balance a dizzying amount of complexity.

What is the biggest challenge you faced during your assessment of the Impact Based Warning system?

 The amount of travel might have been the biggest challenge, although it was interesting, too.  I was the team member who went to almost all of the NWS offices.   I went to four different NWS offices in just over four weeks (my connecting flight was canceled on the way to the fifth office).  I was always worried about whether or not I had enough copies, pencils, batteries, and recording space on the digital recorder.

What was your favorite part of the Impact Based Warning system assessment?

My favorite part of the assessment was listening to the stories that emergency managers, broadcast meteorologists, and weather forecasters had about their experiences.  There were stories in every NWS coverage area about some big event that helped shape their outlooks, like the big tornado, the rogue spotter, or the community that sets off its siren just because someone called 911.   

What part of your job did you least expect to be doing?

I was prepared for what I would be doing for the IBW assessment.  My dissertation research entailed a lot of interviews, asking questions, and travel.  Transcripts, coding, and data entry are all things that I would normally do in a research project.   

What drove you to be a social scientist?

I was a physical geography and environmental science undergraduate student, and always wondered why people did not understand why people did not think it was important to protect the environment.  After working in planning, civil rights, and advocacy, I began to realize that it is society’s complicated relationships – between individuals, organizations, policies, and institutions – that influence our behavior towards each other and the environment.  As a geographer, I study the factors that influence stakeholder and public participation in particular places.

Why do you think it is important to have social scientists at Sea Grant?

It’s important to have social scientists at Sea Grant because social scientists study the knowledge, beliefs, values, motivations, experiences, and actions of individuals and groups, which can inform policy, environmental research, and educational programs. In policy analysis or program evaluation, social science can help identify what is working, what is not working, and more importantly, why.
For example, in the IBW project, we were able to find that one of the stakeholder groups was clearly less satisfied than the others. The dissatisfaction was a pattern in both the focus group data and surveys.  In the end, we were able to identify the cause of dissatisfaction, and make recommendations to the NWS based on the comments and suggestions from that stakeholder group.

How did you get involved with Sea Grant? Did you apply for graduate student funding directly or through your adviser?

I applied for Sea Grant funding directly.  I’d met Jane Harrison while developing a proposal for another project.  We discovered we had similar research interests and community connections.  She sent me a copy of the job description for a research assistant position to work on the project.  Because I love weather, have done a lot of reading about natural hazards, and do qualitative research, I decided to apply.

How is being funded by Sea Grant different than other funding sources? Are there any additional benefits or requirements?

Sea Grant is different from other funding sources.  A major difference was that I could see the research application and agency collaboration unfold.  There were a lot of benefits, too.  I was grateful to get to work with a team of social scientists that were working on the kind of science-policy interface issues that I would like to work on in the future. Also, I was able to attend the Social Coast Forum in Charleston, SC, and learn about social science research going on in coastal communities.      

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science?

A very long time ago!  I have always loved weather and climate. As a kid, I had my own weather station and cloud notebook. 

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?

Governing Sustainability by W. Neil Adger and Andrew Jordan.  One take-away from the book is that sustainability is about science and the environment, but it is also about policy, risk perception, public participation, and how those processes are managed. To the authors, if we want to achieve sustainability, societal concerns must become a priority, and we have to change how we collectively make decisions.

And how about a personal favorite book?

 A favorite book is The Long-Shining Waters by Danielle Sosin.  It is the story of three different women who live around Lake Superior at three different points in history.  Sosin is a skilled storyteller, but she is also good at creating a sense of place.  In one place in the book, you feel like you are standing on the rock at Agawa Canyon.

Do you have an outside hobby?

When possible, I like to go kayaking. Living about six blocks from Lake Michigan makes it much easier to sneak a quick trip at the end of the day.

What surprised you most about working with Sea Grant?

It was a little surprising to be a part of such a collaborative team.  In my field, many scholars work alone, and we don’t have as many opportunities to work with others in teams.  I was lucky to get to work with and learn from this amazing group of social scientists, who have a lot of expertise in outreach, policy, and research methods.  Since the end of IBW, I’ve been able to continue to work with Jane, Caitie, Kathy, and Hilarie. Maybe the biggest surprise was that I expected to just be an RA, but ended up connected to and working with a network of researchers with common interests and goals in the longer-term.
Read about the other social scientists who completed the study:
Jane Harrison, P.h.D, Environmental Social Scientist at University of Wisconsin Sea Grant
Catie McCoy, Environmental Social Scientist at Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant
Kathy Bunting-Howarth, J.D. Ph.D. Associate Director of New York Sea Grant

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